William Perkins On Common Grace

First, that we may put a difference between Christian and heathen virtues. For, howbeit the same virtues in kind and name are and may be found both in those that profess Christ and those also that are ignorant of the true God. Yet they are in them after a divers manner. For in heathen men they are the gifts of God, but not parts of regeneration and new birth. But in those that be true Christians they are indeed not only the gifts of God’s Spirit but also essential parts of regeneration.

That we may better yet conceive this difference we must understand that the grace of God in man is twofold: restraining and renewing.

Restraining [grace] is that which bridles and restrains the corruption of men’s hearts from breaking forth into outward actions, for the common good, that societies may be preserved and one man may live orderly with another. Renewing grace is that which not only restrains corruption but also mortifies sin and renews the heart daily more and more. The former of these is incident to heathen men and the virtues which they have. It serves only to repress the act of sin in their outward actions. But in Christians, they are graces of God, not only bridling and restraining the affection, but renewing the heart, and mortifying all corruption. And though those virtues of the heathen be graces of God, yet they are but general and common to all. Whereas the virtues of Christians, are special graces of the Spirit, sanctifying and renewing the mind, will, and affections. For example, chastity in Joseph was a grace of God’s Spirit, renewing his heart. But chastity in Xenocrates was a common grace serving only to curb and restrain the corruption of his heart. And the like may be said of the justice of Abraham, a Christian, and of Aristides, a heathen.

William Perkins, Cases of Conscience, 1st edn, 1606; repr. 1617, 113. [modernized]


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  1. Hi, RSC… How should we understand Perkins use of the word “regeneration” as in the sentence: But in those that be true Christians they are indeed not only the gifts of God’s Spirit but also essential parts of regeneration.? Is it closer to sanctification or growth in godliness rather than our more modern usage?


    • Hi Jack,

      I’m influenced by his coordination here: “regeneration and new birth.” He wouldn’t be saying “sanctification and new birth” so I take him to be using it primarily to refer to the awakening by God of a dead sinner to spiritual life. He was certainly interested in sanctification, however, as is evident by the last paragraph.

    • Interesting… I’m taking his use of “regeneration” in the first sentence to be modified by the next sentence which I quoted; i.e. the true Christian has already been born again, i.e. regenerated (common/modern usage?) and virtues, he states, are essential parts of regeneration (different/older usage?). That would seem to point the meaning of the word to something other (e.g. growth in godliness?) than what is connected to the beginning of faith, in that our virtues are not used by the Spirit nor add anything to how one is born again or “regenerated.”

      Have I confused you enough with my ramblings? Thanks.

    • Yes, I get that and agree. Still, the phrasing of his words causes me to wonder if he implies a broader meaning of regeneration, inclusive of the whole change (immediate and ongoing) wrought by God in the believer and one not limited to the beginning of new life as indicated by new birth. Either way, I wasn’t reading into it a change in the order of sanctity follows the bestowal of new life. Thanks again…

  2. I think I agree with this but I find it doesn’t go over well in some circles. 2Kers, for example, seem to want to say that virtue is part of the common good because we see it in both believers and unbelievers. They do not want to see any abilities or virtues that the believer has as being related to regeneration simply because those same abilities and virtues appear in unbelievers. Do you think this a fair assessment? Could Perkins be accused of being arbitrary and ad hoc?

    • Terry,

      1. I’m not sure what you’re saying. I’m not sure what a two-kingdoms (or one-kingdom, two-spheres) analysis has to do with this directly. Perkins, as I read him, was distinguishing between the common (universal) operations of God in the world whereby he restrains evil and grants virtues of a kind to unbelievers and those special, saving operations he performs in believers.

      2. I doubt that there is any such thing as “the 2K” anything. There are a variety of 2K approaches since it is an analytical question rather than a set of agreed results.

      3. Distinguishing between God’s special and general operations is typical among advocates of 2K as an analytical tool. Some virtues are common to believers and unbelievers. This is how I understand Perkins when he says, “the same virtues in kind and name are and may be found both in those that profess Christ and those also that are ignorant of the true God.”

      I take Perkins to be saying that some of the same gifts exist in both pagans and Christians but those gifts are the result of different divine operations. In Christians those gifts are the result of regeneration and in pagans they are the result of restraining, common grace.

    • Dr. Clark, yes, I take it that way as well. I’m get my sense of 2K from @oldlife and from David Van Drunen’s books. I think there would be a reluctance to see Gid’s work in the believer as coming from a different divine operation since the virtue or ability is in common between the two, I.e. between the believer and the unbeliever.

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